Bonds flexes his muscles

Updated: April 7, 2004, 4:40 PM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

Anyone looking to draft Barry Bonds in a licensed fantasy baseball game this year will only find a listing for "San Francisco OF." And anyone who plays MVP Baseball 2004, Electronic Arts' computer game, will notice that a curious addition to the San Francisco Giants' roster is John Dowd, who if not for being a red-headed Caucasian who bats righty, is otherwise the spitting image of Bonds, down to his height, weight and batting statistics.

Bonds changes his
John Hancock
Barry Bonds signatures
Barry Bonds has changed his signature several times over the course of his baseball career.

Collectibles with Barry Bonds' signature already command a pretty penny, with baseballs typically costing in the $300 to $400 range.

But the price is likely to go up soon, as the only way to get a new authentic Bonds signature will be through his Web site. Bonds has sold direct to the public before, but this time there will be a new hologram and a certificate of authenticity, which itself will actually be signed by Bonds, who will use a pen with a special ink that is registered solely to him by the U.S. Government.

Although Bonds' marketing agent Jeff Bernstein said Bonds will unveil a new signature in 2004, the most valuable authentic Bonds signature will continue to be the "Barry L. Bonds" that he signed in his early playing days (1983-1988), said Steve Grad, a senior authenticator for PSA/DNA, which certifies athlete's signatures. Grad said he has authenticated more than four variations of Bonds' John Hancock signed throughout his career.

The items on Bonds' Web site will include dual signed balls by Bonds and Willie Mays, with the date that they hit their 660 home runs below. The balls will be displayed in a glass case that has "660" etched on it. Another item will be a signed Russell jersey that has both Bonds and Mays' names and numbers on the back, and has "660" on the sleeve. A Bonds/Mays "660" collage signed by both players also will be for sale.

-- Darren Rovell
Bonds might be one of the most prolific home-run hitters in baseball history, but the Giants' 39-year-old slugger isn't in any trading card set or video game this year.

"Barry is one of the best to ever play the game, and it's disappointing to a 10-year-old fan who doesn't know why he's not there," said Howard Smith, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of licensing, a former Reebok marketing executive who has overseen the league's program for the past six years.

Bonds, who is noticeably absent from the usual licensed merchandise, informed the Major League Baseball Players Association in November that he would not sign the group licensing agreement, which aggregates the rights of the names and likenesses of league's players. In exchange for their signature on the group licensing agreement, the players share a percentage of the sale of various products based on the number of service days they played that year.

On the surface, the solo act seems like a smart move.

Bonds has signed 20 individual licensing deals, according to his marketing agent Jeff Bernstein, managing director of Pro Access. Russell Athletic, Majestic and Headmaster are making Bonds jerseys. Forever Collectibles is selling a snow globe that features Bonds and Mays, while Wilson and SAM have teamed up to peddle a Bonds signature bat. Mforma Group Inc. will create a Barry Bonds cell phone game. Danbury Mint and Highland Mint are making high-end collectibles, such as 22-karat coins of Bonds and Mays.

"Barry felt that when he accomplished some of his other milestones -- his 500th, 600th and 73rd home runs -- that he was never able to maximize the opportunity off the field," Bernstein said. "By having his own licensing program, he can better control his name and image and have a more direct relationship with the companies that use him."

The number of deals Bonds has can be gauged as even more of a success given that Bonds' name is being associated with the BALCO scandal. Greg Anderson, his friend and personal trainer, has been indicted in the case.

Despite Bonds' association with Anderson and BALCO, Bernstein said the phone continues to ring with calls from companies looking to work out new deals with the Giants' slugger.

Although Bonds' short-term endorsement deals with Charles Schwab and Kentucky Fried Chicken have expired, Bernstein said he expects more endorsement opportunities to come Bonds' way as he nears his 700th home run. Companies such as Franklin, which makes Bonds' batting glove, and Fila, which launched a signature shoe called the Bonds XT last season, continue to tout their association with Bonds, Bernstein said.

Current licensees can go after Bonds, but they are not permitted to include him in a set with the other licensed players. Bonds owns the rights to his name and number, but he can only be featured in a Giants jersey if the company has a license with Major League Baseball.

Bonds has set up his own licensing operation to better control his image, and will launch his own Web site, www.barrybonds.com, in the next couple of days. The site was created to allow people to better understand him, yet some say that Bonds' splitting off from the union is yet another move that could alienate him from fans.

"Barry going on his own could be seen as the marketing equivalent of him not talking to the media," said Gil Pagovich, a partner in Maxximum Marketing, a sports marketing firm.

Others see it differently.

"For those fans that are still fans of Bonds after everything that he's been through, [going on his own] isn't going to deter anybody who already hasn't been deterred," said Rod McGeachy, vice president of marketing for Russell Athletic.

Most players tied to the MLBPA licensing program get the same royalty cut, but players that are featured on products receive a higher share of the revenue, said Judy Heeter, the director of business affairs and licensing for the union. Bonds could have signed most of his new deals while still retaining his stake as a member of the retail program, Heeter said.

Early sales numbers show that Bonds' absence from the video games is not affecting sales. Sales of EA's MVP Baseball are outpacing last year's game by more than 300 percent and sales of Sony's "MLB 2005" are up 100 percent from last year, Smith said.

There's a similar buzz in the memorabilia industry, where executives with trading card business don't expect business to be dictated by the lack of Bonds product.

"It's not that Barry Bonds isn't an important player, because he is," said Bill Dully, president and chief operating officer of Donruss. "But there are so many huge team stories this year -- like the Cubs, like the Astros, like the Red Sox, like the Angels -- that Bonds is just being overshadowed. The big teams in the big cities are writing the big stories this year, and that's where the collecting focus is."

Even if Bonds' move is seen by some as elitist, many believe that Bonds' historic march can still drive sales of their product.

One of the Barry Bonds believers is Joe Yoon, president of Headmaster, which is making Bonds' Arizona State college retro jersey. Yoon struck a deal with the MLBPA last year in order to use the names of current players, including Jason Giambi, Craig Biggio and Randy Johnson, on the back of the jersey. Yoon was planning to use Bonds, but the slugger opted out of the licensing agreement after the contract was signed. After Yoon made a separate deal with Bonds, the jersey became a best seller to retailers.

"He's got a lot of fans out there," Yoon said.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com

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